Camera Love: buying your first dSLR

You are in your family room, opening Christmas gifts, surrounded by family, with everyone laughing and enjoying the moment. You want to capture that feeling of togetherness, those emotions of joy and love and generosity. So you reach for your camera.

And you get it. You get The Shot. The Shot that shows togetherness and joy and love and generosity. It’s beautiful.

Or you don’t. You miss it because your camera can’t focus. Or the flash makes everything look like a mug shot and not all warm and fuzzy the way life actually felt in that moment.

You can choose which of those two outcomes you want. You can capture what you’re really feeling in the moment. You can do this.

Gurnee Photographer

This is not rocket science. Everyday hundreds of people figure out how to use their cameras and capture the feeling of life around them. Just look at the numbers of professional photographers popping up in your area. It does not take a 4 year degree to learn photography. It does take time and effort and practice and mistakes, but you will get the hang of it. You will.

Trust me. I did it. So I know first hand, it’s not rocket science.

It’s more like speaking a new language. You won’t be fluent overnight, but every time you pick up your camera, you will get better. And when you see your images change, when you start to see them capture what you feel, you will love it.

So if you want to give this a shot (haha, yes, I laugh at my own puns!) let’s talk about what you need…

dSLR
A dSLR is a digital Single Lens Reflective camera. That means that when you look through the viewfinder there is a small mirror that shows you exactly what the lens is looking at. When you push the shutter the mirror flips up and the digital sensor underneath captures the image from the lens (and temporarily blocks the viewfinder).

Why a dSLR?
Control. If you want to take great pictures that capture life the way you see it, you need to control the way the camera sees things – you need to make those two visions match up. A dSLR lets you do that.

Camera technology is changing rapidly with point-and-shoot and mirrorless cameras improving every month. Someday, in the not so distant future, they may be comparable to dSLRs. Until then, the main reasons people choose a dSLR over them are control over settings, faster shutter & focusing speeds, and image quality. These are the building blocks that let you capture the image you want and set the stage for great prints.

Which dSLR?
The two major players for choosing the right dSLR for you are your budget and what feels good in your hands. Really, it’s that simple.

The amount of money you have to spend is the best place to start. Know how much money you have to spend. Cameras vary greatly in price but all of the brands have entry-level dSLRs and they all have similar benefits/drawbacks. Once you have an idea of what you want to spend (make sure you reserve at least 20% of your budget for a lens!), pull up a website like CNET and read reviews of the cameras in that price range. In the $500-$1200 price range, CNET has 166 options available. Some of them will be camera body only and some will be the body with a lens (often called a “kit”). Look at the body only options and then pinpoint the amount you want to spend (don’t forget your lens reserve!). Read those reviews, which ones sound good to you? Narrow it down to 3 or 4.

Once you have that narrowed down, go into a store and hold them in your hand. Which one feels the best? You will be spending a good amount of quality time with this camera so play around with it a bit and see which one begins to feel like an extension of you. All the major brands are fighting to outdo themselves with camera quality so you will be picking from excellent competitors.CNET has great in-depth reviews to give you the plusses and minuses. The more you spend, the more features and better quality sensor you will get. You want a camera you can grow into so don’t skimp on your budget. You get what you pay for.

Which lens?
When I purchased my first dSLR I bought a kit lens because I didn’t really know what I needed and it was less expensive to buy them together rather than separate. What I didn’t realize is that the kit lens really wasn’t capable of doing what I wanted it to do.

You see, lenses are like shoes – you buy them to fit your specific needs, there is not one lens that will do everything. I don’t wear heels to the gym and I don’t wear running shoes out to a nice dinner. To buy the right lens, you need to think about how you want to use it.

Most of the people who ask me about cameras, want to be able to take photos of their kids in low light settings, similar to the Christmas example I gave at the beginning. For those kinds of situations I recommend a 35mm 1.8 f-stop prime lens. This lens won’t to everything, but it will do Christmas very well.  Without going into too many technical details, the 35mm length will give you a view of both the person and a little bit of their surroundings. The 1.8 f-stop will let in large amounts of light, making it easier to take photos indoors without a flash. This is a PRIME lens, so it will not zoom… which takes getting used to. You’ll be moving around to get the shots more than you typically did with a point and shoot.  Since it doesn’t zoom, it is generally a budget friendly lens costing in the $150-$250 price range.

One little side note about lenses, they are not transferable between brands. So if you buy a Canon camera, make sure you buy a lens designed for a Canon. The lens doesn’t have to be a Canon brand- off-brands like Sigma make great lenses for Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc- it just has to be for the specific Canon mount.

I also shoot a lot of sports so sometimes people want advice for those situations too… it gets a little tricky because sports situations can vary greatly when it comes to lighting. But as a generally rule for my sports photography, I go for my longest zoom lens and I don’t worry about the f-stop because I’m outside in bright light. For me it is my 70-300mm lens. This is about a $1000 lens but for anyone wanting to take pictures of their kids at outdoor sporting functions, I would suggest picking the longest zoom (telephoto) lens your budget allows.

Where do I buy my dSLR and 35mm 1.8 f-stop lens?
My favorite places to shop for camera equipment are B & H Photo, Adorama & Calumet. For retail locations,  you can buy consumer dSLRs at just about anywhere… Target and Best Buy are great options.

For the price conscious, also check out craigslist and eBay. There are tons of cameras and lenses available second-hand if you don’t mind a previous owner. Be sure to ask for an accurate shutter count (also called “actuations”) so you know the previous use of the camera. Similar to cars & mileage, each camera make/model has an expected lifetime of use. It may last much longer than the standard, but an accurate count will give you an idea of how much longer you can realistically expect the camera to last. There are many free tools on the web for finding out shutter count (http://www.camerashuttercount.com) and to find the life expectancy for your model I would Google it or look it up on your brand specific website.

I’ve got the camera & lens, now what?
First, put your camera on Auto and take a photo.
Second: OPEN. YOUR. MANUAL. Find out how to put your camera on Aperture Priority mode. Change your aperture to 1.8 (the camera will do the rest). Now take a photo. Look at it. Evaluate the two images. What do you think? Likes/dislikes?
Third, PRACTICE. It’s not going to be easy- no one speaks French the first day of French 101- but you will get the hang of it. Promise.

And I’ll write more on that later. Now it’s time to get out there and shoot 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Camera Love: buying your first dSLR

  1. Um…this is a pretty awesome post, my friend!! Lots of great info packed in here. All of which I learned the long way–wish I had read something like this about 4 years ago! 😉 I’ll be referring a friend to read this…*mwah*!

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